In the latest McKinsey digital newsletter, Mark Marino muses that innovation is like a coral reef: nobody quite understands what causes reefs to form, but human actions can nurture or harm the process. Silicon Valley, he says, is an innovation reef, started by Dave Packard and Bill Hewitt in their Palo Alto garage during the depression — an organic, bottom-up, self-sustaining ecosystem.
And while that model has built hubs of entrepreneurial growth around Boston, Seattle, and Raleigh-Durham, it may not be sufficient to jumpstart innovation today. He argues that bottom-up strategies need an umbrella approach at the top — something like a national "innovation czar" to focus on the big picture. This czar could drive investments in renewable energy, better health care and improved education by selecting areas that are near the tipping point and funding them. Perhaps the czar could also eliminate needless regulations or address immigration policies that send our highly educated immigrants away when they'd prefer to stay here and start breakthrough companies.
Good ideas all, but likely to fall off the radar screens of a county that's struggling with recession, war, unemployment, and health care reform. Of course, it's precisely during difficult times that people try to do things better, for less. Maybe today's Dave and Bill are tinkering in a garage someplace (or on their laptops at Starbucks), and this recession will see the birth of innovation we'll need for the next growth spurt in the world economy. Perhaps tomorrow's billionaires are working on their own ideas since they can't find work elsewhere. Let's collectively hope so.
Nurturing the innovation reef.